Quick Spin: Bartender Chris Hannah

Chris Hannah, New Orleans [Denny Culbert]
Chris Hannah of Jewel of the South, New Orleans [Denny Culbert]
For weeks now, it seems as though we’re in a collective gasp, trying to keep up with the unknown terrain at our feet, our options changing as quickly as they appear.

Our industry, too – our beloved industry, of food and drink, producers and purveyors – distressed beyond words. Restaurateurs and chefs scrambling to keep their dreams and dining rooms alive. Line cooks, bartenders, waitstaff everywhere waiting for news of their next shift.

Locations around the world have adapted as best as they can. Hundreds of bars and restaurants have adjusted hours and menus, scrambling to keep staff employed by offering family meals, bottled cocktails, and valued grocery items. Some spots have become creative in cultivating cashflow, from t-shirts and tchotchkes to fundraising pages. Organizations like the Independent Restaurant Coalition and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United are fighting for safer guidelines and consistent funding to support the foodservice reentry process. It’s a new territory moving forward.

Bartender Chris Hannah is one of the millions of industry workers navigating these uneasy waters. Hannah, a long-time staple of the New Orleans bar scene, is co-owner of two properties in the Big Easy: Manolito and Jewel of the South. The latter, named after a 19th-century bar of the same moniker, opened in late 2018 as a cozy cocktail spot with a menu of small plates. In January 2020, it expanded to include courtyard dining, a full-service restaurant, and an “intimate cocktail lounge” named The Grove.

“It was always our plan to open a multi-story dining and drinking destination with something for everyone,” Hannah’s business partner, fellow barman Nick Detrich, told FSR Magazine earlier this year. “It’s been a year-long process and we’re really excited it’s finally come to fruition. We can’t wait to welcome our friends and neighbors to see the final result.”

Just a few weeks ago, Jewel of the South was announced amongst the nominees for this year’s Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards. The annual gathering of spirits lovers and bar folks – a regular summer boost to the local New Orleans economy – has already been cancelled amid the ever-changing plans of the pandemic, with event officials hoping to take the sessions digital.

So, What Happens Next?

Q: You were at Arnaud’s for so long. How did it shape your experience opening a spot like Jewel of the South?

A: Working at Arnaud’s for almost 15 years has helped guide and prepare me for bringing back the Jewel of the South to New Orleans.  Doing my part to ensure and instill the relevance of the French 75 bar is what I’ll have to do all over again at Jewel on St. Louis Street.  Working with an icon of New Orleans restaurants and hospitality for so long was a unique experience and has helped me prepare for what we want to build at Jewel of the South.

Q: Arnaud’s French 75 won the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Bar Program in 2017, and Jewel of the South has been nominated for a number of Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards this year as well. How do awards like these influence your business?

A: Winning the James Beard when running the French 75 bar will always be the highlight of my bartending career, and to continue to be included in lists with my peers. The three nominations for Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards warrants the time taken when prepping for each shift and executing behind the bar. Whenever my bar is on a list with my immediate peers and true friends, it confirms that myself and my team are doing a good job, because we believe that [those places] are the best.

Q: Tales of the Cocktail is such a major event for the spirits and bar industry – and this year’s cancellation feels like an insult to injury on top of everything being shuttered. What’s the feel of industry folks down in New Orleans?

A: New Orleans’ hospitality industry is shattered, just as it is all over the world. We thrive on conventions and tourism, but what makes the cancellation of Tales hurt the most is that it is our week to host our equals, the bartending community, from every city in the world.  It’s quite devastating to have to wait another year to prove Tales of the Cocktail is still the world’s premier cocktail event.

Q: You and Nick opened Jewel of the South in 2018, and not two years later, a complete lockdown due to COVID-19. What do your days look like during this?

A: We were open one year and one week when we had to lock down during the second week of March. We had to clear out the backbar and pack everything like everyone else. Then do a deep clean and throw everything away. After that, we have been thinking of what the best use of our space should be before we reopen. How can we attempt to make rent and bills, because operating for a profit this year isn’t looking likely. Staying open is this year’s goal.

Q: What are your hopes for the restaurant moving forward – and for New Orleans as a whole?

A: My hopes for the restaurant moving forward will be safety first, and then little by little, opening up within the parameters of the city and our ability to safely serve and for us to be clean and safe, too.  As for New Orleans, I am pleased with some of our COVID-19 numbers over the past couple of days, but [hope that we] stay closed long enough for everyone to come out harmed as little as possible.

Q: How can cocktail fans best support you in the months to come?

A: Cocktail fans can help support Jewel of the South by pledging towards our GoFundMe. We understand many great bars and restaurants have opened up GoFundMe accounts, and we truly appreciate anyone who has added to our staff fund.


~Jennifer Matthewson

Photo credit: Denny Culbert

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